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Sun, April 21

Incentive plan is approved to attract public defenders

KINGMAN – The Mohave County Board of Supervisors Monday approved a proposal to give added incentives to the County Public Defender’s and Legal Defender’s Offices. These incentives would provide additional means to recruit and retain defense attorneys for indigents.

Mohave County Public Defender Dana Hlavac prepared a data based proposal for the Board and the County Manager asking for assistance in recruiting and retaining employees. Under the resolution approved Jan. 9, County Manager Ron Walker was given the authority to “apply market premium adjustments as required to recruit for identified ‘hot jobs’ based on review of statistical recruitment, retention, and market information and indicators,” according to backup material for that meeting.

This gave Hlavac the opportunity to request additional assistance to fill four positions that have remained open for three years. According to the document Hlavac prepared, “The inability to recruit and retain on a consistent basis has and will continue to force the county to utilize outside private contract attorneys at a clearly higher per case cost.”

Hlavac’s recommendations to correct this dilemma were to implement five program additions. The first, he said, had already been implemented through the 10 percent market adjustment approved on Jan. 9.

The second addition was to institute the matching loan repayment program. This would allow employees who are employed within the same department for a period of at least two consecutive years to become eligible for a matching program. Under this program, a matching payment of up to $500 would be sent to the employee’s lender (for school loans) after proof is submitted to verify their payment, according to backup material. The lifetime benefit for this program would be $40,000.

A third program addition would provide “full funding for the completion of the remodel of the St. John’s Historic Church during the next fiscal cycle,” backup material said. Hlavac said employees are currently cramped working more than one to an office and are in desperate need for more room.

The final one, also to be seen to in the future, would be planning for the expansion of staffing, both professional and support, to meet continued growth projections.

According to Hlavac’s data, “Over the course of the last four years, roughly 20 percent of individuals hired remained past four years. Only 9 percent have between three and four years experience or stayed at least that long … 49 percent of all new hires stayed less than two years.” These numbers, Hlavac said, increase the amount of contract cases requiring a more experienced lawyer to adequately handle the complicated cases.

Both Hlavac and Legal Defender Ron Gilleo agree that the turnover rate is directly linked to the hardships the job causes. In his research, Hlavac quoted an article by Elizabeth Kelley titled, “Professional Burnout: An Occupational Hazard for Lawyers.”

In it she says, “Criminal defense lawyers see and hear things most people will never see or hear in their lifetimes. They see the worst of human conduct – gruesome crime scenes, the inner working of the criminal mind, and clients who are in denial of the obvious.

“They also get firsthand insights into behaviors that often times conflict with their personal values and morals.

The article further states that “Criminal defense lawyers are further burdened by low peer support in other parts of the profession, general disrespect from the public and clients and a high percentage of aggressive, competitive, and critical colleagues lurking to file ineffective assistance claims or question their decisions or handling of a case. Combined, these factors set the stage for eventual disaster for even the best and the brightest if they are not cognizant of the risks for burnout and take steps to prevent it.”

Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith said he agrees with most of the recommendations put forth by Hlavac and acknowledged the necessity of the items. He did, however, say he had an issue with one part of the proposal. The student loan forgiveness and moving expenses portion should apply, he said, to the prosecutors as well as the defense attorneys. The imbalance of treatment could, he said, create an inverse of the current relationships where the indigent defense attorney’s offices are attracting the majority of the recruits where the prosecutor’s office was suffering from the inability to attract employees. Smith said that the incentives should be applied equally to both sides of the law.

Walker retorted by saying the power he was given to review “hot jobs” necessitated the consideration of jobs on a case-by-case basis. He also said he would only consider jobs where hard, statistical evidence was provided, as in Hlavac’s case, demonstrating the need for added incentives to fill and retain those positions. Walker said if Smith presented the same level of numbers and information, he would be more than happy to apply the incentives to both ends, but not until that point.

The Board voted unanimously to approve Hlavac’s proposals as written.

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